Category Archives: John Coltrane

John Coltrane Discography

Coltrane is rightly regarded as one of the major forces in twentieth-century jazz, a distinction made all the more remarkable by the fact that the majority of that force came in the span of a few short years, from 1960 until his death in 1967 at the age of 40. Before recording the breakthrough Giant Steps (1960), John Coltrane was known to jazz fans as the tenor saxophonist from Miles Davis’ first great quintet. A heroin addiction got him booted from the band, and Coltrane signed with Prestige Records while he cleaned up his act. The Prestige sessions have been recycled and repackaged over the years, have garnered occasional praise (some of it undeserved) and no doubt vexed numerous novices who stumbled upon them thinking they were vintage Coltrane recordings and were left wondering what the fuss was all about.

If that’s where the story ended, Coltrane would be remembered today as a good tenor saxophonist in a great band. But beginning in 1960, Coltrane seemed to invest his entire being into taking his instrument (and jazz along with it) into new dimensions. He fearlessly explored the avant-garde, African music, the conventional limits of song and (heresy of heresies!) intertwined his own deep religious beliefs into his music. Coltrane’s music from this period ranges from agitated to meditative, and features many moments of breathtaking beauty and remarkable technical achievement. Since his death, various “new” recordings have emerged (some authorized by his wife and accompanist, Alice Coltrane) as well as the usual compilations. Yes, I know, that seems like an awfully short biography, but that’s what Wikipedia’s for.

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Hank Mobley/Al Cohn/John Coltrane/Zoot Sims: Tenor Conclave (1957)

Kronomyth 0.5: THE FOUR TENORS. This is a treat for tenor saxophonistas: four tenors on four tracks, four your pure listening enjoyment. These early Prestige All-Star recordings are an embarrassment of riches, really, as they arranged titans like chess pieces in endless (and timeless) configurations. Tenor Conclave is a meeting built on mutual respect; the quartet of horns and the rhythm section of Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor play together very nicely, each bringing their unique voice to the material without shouting on top of one another. The opening number from Hank Mobley gets the session off to a fun start, with lots of solos and a lighthearted spirit throughout. “Just You, Just Me” is another brisk-paced number with fast, articulated solos from this fab foursome; it’s the loosest of the tracks in terms of performance (the solo trading at the end gets a little out of hand), but it’s a hoot to hear. “Bob’s Boys,” the second Mobley original, is a bit more businesslike but still swings, and you can begin to make out the individual soloists while realizing that it doesn’t really matter who plays what or even what they play, but this preserved moment of great artists at play that matters. “How Deep Is The Ocean” is a soulful ballad with understated accompaniment and some gorgeous solos. Here we encounter the true province of the tenor, able to plumb the depths of sadness and beauty with artful grace. A bowed bass solo from Paul Chambers breaks things up, although I’ve always found it a little jarring. (Is there a bass player who hasn’t done the bowed bass bit at least once?) Compared to Prestige’s Interplay for 2 Trumpets and 2 Tenors, Tenor Conclave is a more natural setting, even if the idea of four tenor sax players on one song seems unnatural. The music is essentially written for a quartet with lots of tenor solos; the moments where the four play together are relatively few. By contrast, the double trumpet/tenor lineup was unwieldy at times. While it wouldn’t make my list of ten essential Coltrane recordings (actually, no such list exists), Tenor Conclave is a small feast for tenor sax fans, although feel free to skip ahead to dessert, since “How Deep Is The Ocean” is the best part.

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John Coltrane: Coltrane (1957)

Kronomyth 1.0: A LEGEND IN TRANING. You never forget the first time. Unless you’re a recovering heroin addict getting paid what basically amounts to train fare to perform, in which case maybe you want to forget. That was John Coltrane in the waning May days of 1957, holed up in Hackensack, New Jersey with fellow MDQ refugee Paul Chambers, Red Garland and a handful of players who might each have been the next great something at one time or another. The idea of Coltrane’s first record as a leader is enough to set the senses aflame, so allow me to be the wet blanket: this is not history in the making. Sure, Coltrane’s presence is keenly felt as a soloist—from fluttering notes to a foghorn—but this is mostly by-the-books stuff from a guy who would be rewriting the book in just a few years. The most interesting songs are the two original compositions from Coltrane, “Straight Street” and “Chronic Blues,” which allude to his station as a recovering addict and foreshadow some of the adventurous music to come. The romantic “While My Lady Sleeps” is another highlight. All three tracks feature Mal Waldron, who gets the better of Red Garland on this disc. A few of the songs on here feature three horns (including trumpet and baritone sax), which would seem unwieldy on the surface, but Coltrane actually uses the three together sparingly and most effectively when stating a short theme. The opening “Bakai” is one of those three-horned songs, a busy cityscape that reminds me of some of Coleman Hawkins’ more modern-sounding compositions. Coltrane wouldn’t hit his stride for a few years; this and some of the other Prestige recordings are baby steps compared to the giant steps of 1960 and after. Given the interest in Coltrane’s music, Prestige certainly got their money’s worth out of these recordings, but I can think of at least half a dozen places where your $15 would be better spent on Trane fare.

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Idrees Sulieman, Webster Young, John Coltrane, Bobby Jaspar with Mal Waldron, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers, Art Taylor: Interplay For 2 Trumpets And 2 Tenors (1957)

This is one of the earliest recordings of the Prestige All-Stars, an ad-hoc collection of stars from Prestige’s roster, featuring the first appearance of Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes.” Many years later, when Waldron passed away at the ripe old age (relative to jazz musicians) of 77, the NY Times would remember him as “the last accompanist of Billie Holiday and composer of the jazz classic, Soul Eyes.” Here in its sweetly savored seventeen-minute version, “Soul Eyes” is simply sublime. Waldron wrote the song specifically for John Coltrane and in many ways it’s the quintessential Trane track, unfolding in slow, rich tones with fluttering accompaniment, at once sensual and spiritual. The remaining tracks on Interplay For 2 Trumpets And 2 Tenors are just what the title implies: vehicles for Coltrane, Bobby Jaspar, Idrees Sulieman and Webster Young to strut their stuff. Honestly, I can’t tell the difference between Young and Sulieman since I’m not very familiar with their work. Jaspar, though quick, has a reedier tone than Coltrane; you can hear the two of them trade solos on “Anatomy,” although Jaspar fares better in an earlier exchange with one of the horn players. The opening “Interplay” is a swinging number with a strong melody, which makes up for a certain lack of chemistry among the players. An eight-piece with double trumpet/tenor can obviously be unwieldy, especially when you need to find time for everyone to solo. “Anatomy” and “Light Blue” are little more than platforms for that purpose. At some point in your life, you owe it to yourself to hear this version of “Soul Eyes.” You might even find that the melody to “Interplay” rattles around in your head for a while too. But Interplay isn’t the best way to experience these players, each of whom can be heard to better effect on their respective Prestige solo records. [Note: Subsequent reissues of this album included a live version of “C.T.A.” that was recorded on the same day and which originally appeared on Taylor’s Wailers.]

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John Coltrane Quartet: Crescent (1964)

Kronomyth 23.0: A TURKISH DELIGHT. The danger in my making any pronouncement about a particular John Coltrane album is my passing familiarity with the vast body of his work. I’ve heard perhaps a dozen albums, read the glowing praise of pundits with cold disinterest and have divided his records into two camps of “eh” and “ooh.” Crescent belongs to the latter and would currently make my shortlist of quintessential Coltrane. Chronologically, it’s smack in the middle of his classic period, flanked by one of the great quartets from the twentieth century: McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones. If you were going to introduce someone to the work of Coltrane, it would be in their company. From the opening moments of “Crescent,” we’re introduced to Coltrane the creator, whose musical vistas spread unhurried like dawn over a dark landscape. There is something supremely confident and natural in the way that Coltrane and the quartet can turn over a melody and slowly admire every facet, then play with it like a cat with a mouse. For the first half of the record, Coltrane is the master mouser, unleashing diabolical solos, resting in thoughtful repose and channeling his fury anew. On the last two songs, Coltrane steps back to let his band have the spotlight; Tyner steps out of the way entirely on “The Drum Thing,” leaving Coltrane, Garrison and Jones to smolder like some exotic censer. The contributions of the quartet here are significant: Tyner’s masterful strokes of color, Garrison’s eastern-inflected bass, Jones’ subtle but strong rhythms. They’re the perfect complement to Coltrane’s unhurried and uninhibited muse, shedding light on the lush green of lovely melodies or receding while the stormclouds of his genius raged. Really, the whole record is perfection, which I realize is what most people say about most Coltrane records, but most of the time I don’t agree with them. This time, however, the quartet has painted a masterpiece.

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John Coltrane: Selflessness Featuring My Favorite Things (1969)

Kronomyth 42.0: NEWPORT KINGS. This is a posthumous release featuring a pair of live tracks from the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival plus an unreleased recording from the Kulu Se Mama sessions, “Selflessness.” The time between the recordings was only two years, yet they’re light-years removed from each other stylistically. The live recordings are adventurous, of course, but still anchored in a traditional four-piece lineup. “Selflessness,” recorded as an eight-piece, is completely untethered from tradition or convention; it sounds like two different songs superimposed on one another, with persistent hand percussion clapping in one ear against the chaos of creation itself. What strikes me when listening to the live recordings is how time seems to slow down for Coltrane. He finds nuances in the music that you didn’t know existed, as though everyone were moving at half-speed except him, freeing his tenor saxophone to leap and dart between the notes. There are the typical squalls of sound from the saxophone (at times, the man sounds like a goose caught in a twister), which serve to make the twisting, melodic passages more beautiful. And, as often happens with Coltrane, the tenor saxophone discovers a completely new voice that you didn’t know the instrument could produce: an unearthly flutter at the end of “My Favorite Things,” a honk that morphs into mechanical distortion on “Selflessness.” Both recordings feature the classic quartet (minus Elvin Jones) with appearances from Roy Haynes, Frank Butler and Pharoah Sanders. McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison shine on “My Favorite Things,” but the spotlight is never far from Coltrane; his solo at the end of “I Want To Talk About You,” which might have been merely an exclamation point, instead becomes an entirely new conversation with the audience. The attraction of this disc is the startling “Selflessness” and the unstartling supremacy of the classic quartet (with Haynes) onstage. The live recording leaves something to be desired, but the performance is typically top notch. Not the first Coltrane disc you need to hear, obviously, but a better bet to please than some of those early Prestige recordings.

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John Coltrane: His Greatest Years, Vol. 3 (1974)

This is the last in a three-volume set from ABC that collects the best songs from Coltrane’s albums on the Impulse label with Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner. At the time, His Greatest Years was probably the most exhaustive retrospective of his work, although it’s confined to a handful of years (1963 to 1967) during Coltrane’s deliberately difficult avant-garde phase. Despite the relatively small sampling of time, Coltrane (as we know) defied time, space and most other dimensions when he played, so the music collected here is remarkably varied. There are the perfect love songs where Coltrane blows aces (“Dedicated To You,” “Dear Lord”), the frenzied marathons where Coltrane literally spends his saxophone until there’s nothing left ( “Chasin’ The Trane,” “Cosmos”) and the glissandoing magic of his later works (“Expression,” “Welcome”). Also included here as an added bonus for collectors is a live version of “Nature Boy” recorded at NYC’s Village Gate on March 28, 1965 that originally appeared on the Impulse compilation, The New Wave In Jazz, and no doubt left both player and audience exhausted. The album ends on a risky note with “Living Space,” part of Alice Coltrane’s daring re-vision of her husband’s last recordings that appeared on the posthumous Infinity. In retrospect, “Living Space” is a prescient work that prefigures much of the avant-garde, multicultural and minimalist music to come; kudos to ABC for coming to Infinity’s defense so quickly. In 1980, after MCA acquired the ABC catalog, they reissued the three-volume series with its original cover artwork and simply stamped a new number on top of it.

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